October 14, 2005

What Is a Religious Test?

Hatched by Dafydd

So are conservatives "hypocritical," as E.J. Dionne concludes, for objecting to the Democrats' use of religion to criticize nominees like John Roberts then turning around and using Harriet Miers' religion as a reason to support her now?

The answer is an emphatic No, they are not. There is no hypocrisy involved for the simple reason that those opposing the use of religion before are not the same people as those encouraging its use now.

Dionne falls into the classic liberal trap of seeing groups of people instead of individuals. He writes that "President Bush's supporters" will "play religion up or down, whichever helps them most in a political fight." When Sen. Dick Durbin implied that Roberts might not be acceptable because he was a Catholic, several of Bush's supporters opposed that position on principle:

Durbin had his head taken off. "We have no religious tests for public office in this country," thundered Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), insisting that any inquiry about a potential judge's religious views was "offensive." Fidelis, a conservative Catholic group, declared that "Roberts' religious faith and how he lives that faith as an individual has no bearing and no place in the confirmation process."

But now, Dionne announces in triumph, President Bush himself mentions Miers' evangelical Christianity as a selling point, and several other religious conservatives and conservative groups (not including Fidelis) are pleased by that fact. I suppose the identity-politics of the Democratic Party has confused the columnist... but here on this side of the aisle, we actually believe in individualism. If John Cornyn thinks we shouldn't use religion in any way to consider a judicial nominee's fitness, while James Dobson thinks it's perfectly all right, that quite obviously does not make either of them a hypocrite.

Other examples of possible conservative "hypocrisy":

  • Bush supporters think we should round up all illegal immigrants and deport them, but then they turn right around and say we should give them guest-worker status!
  • Bush supporters think the government is spending too much money, but then Bush supporters are in favor of a prescription drug benefit for Medicare!
  • Bush supporters say that government should keep its hands off people's private lives, but wouldn't you know it? Bush supporters angrily attack Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned laws against "sodomy," as judicial activism!
  • Bush supporters say same-sex marriage should be legal because to do otherwise is discrimination -- and then they scream that same-sex marriage should be illegal because traditional marriage is the cornerstone of civilization!

Those wacky, Bush-supporting hypocrites just can't make up their minds. Of course, in each case above, I played the Dionne trick: the first part of each charge referred to a different group of people than the second -- the only point gluing them together being support for George W. Bush's presidency.

The Democratic Party is a patchwork quilt sewn together from a pile of special interests, each of which comprises single-issue voters; it's like a coalition of convenience in a fractious parliamentary system: any deviation on the part of any prominent Democrat from revealed word on any issue is brutally suppressed, because of the panic that advocates for that issue -- taxing the rich, abortion, pulling the troops out of Iraq, same-sex marriage, abortion, Social Security stasis, welfare for everyone, abortion, affirmative action, or abortion -- might pull out of the fragile coalition, causing electoral collapse.

By contrast, the Republican Party is a big tent with room for many divergent opinions. The center-right coalition has proven remarkably stable: libertarian conservatives like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, social and religious conservatives like William Bennett and James Dobson, spending hawks like the gang at National Review, and projection-of-force neoconservative advocates like Paul Wolfowitz can happily cohabit, arguing specific issues while still agreeing it's more pleasant to be inside the tent spitting out than outside the tent spitting in (LBJ's original saying doesn't use the word "spitting," by the way).

If a specific individual took the Cornyn position before and takes the Dobson position now, then that individual is a hypocrite. But if you want to convince me, then show me the quotation. Until I see one, the case remains unmade.

So what -- you ask, wrenching the discussion back to the title of the post -- about Article VI, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution, which commands:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. [emphasis added, obviously]

What the heck is a religious test anyway? Come on, the answer should be obvious to everyone except a lawyer: a religious test, as used here, is a law or regulation that says something like "no Catholics shall be appointed to any position in this state government," or "only those professing a belief in God shall be allowed to file for elective office." That is, a religious test is an actual law or regulation that prohibits or requires a particular religious belief for public office. Arguments or even votes for or against a candidate or nominee on the basis of his religion do not constitute religious tests.

Even some of our best conservative and/or Republican thinkers raise this faux issue, alas. I say alas not because I'm religious, which I am not, but because this argument is an attempt to stifle legitimate discussion by invoking non-existent constitutional diktat. For example, Captain Ed writes:

Using religion as a test for a nomination gets us into dangerous territory, not to mention provides more than a dollop of hypocrisy for this administration. We do not want Congress opening a debate on people's religious beliefs and how that affects their approach to the job. It will create a mini-Inquisition on Capitol Hill for each nominee, who will be required to disavow their faith before proceeding to nomination. It's the kind of act that this administration has often decried, and for good reason.

Why would a nominee have to disavow his faith? If Sen. Charles Schumer argues that the nominee's "deeply held personal beliefs" means he cannot fairly judge, the nominee simply responds "I do not believe sincere Christians, Jews, and Moslems should all be disqualified from the bench" -- and Schumer looks like a religious bigot. No disavowal of faith required.

It's perfectly legitimate and appropriate for Sen. Schumer to make that argument; he absolutely has that right. Just as we absolutely have the right to point out to the nation what he is really saying. Considering the depth of religous belief in the United States -- for which I, as an agnostic, say thank God! -- any such argument can only help the Right and hurt the Left. Why stop the Democrats from pursuing political hara-kiri by the death of a thousand self-inflicted paper cuts?

This approach is consistent with the American way -- disparate ideas clashing on the battlefield of freedom of speech, and may the best argument win! Go ahead and argue for Harriet Miers or John Roberts on the basis of faith; don't feel ashamed. And let those who despise faith argue their case. I'm satisified in this case, as in nearly all others, to abide by the democratic process unless clear and explicit rights are to be violated... and of course, nobody has the "right" to be either a judge or a senator.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, October 14, 2005, at the time of 4:03 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Jimbo

I found this a fascinating approach to the question. I, for one, had felt that we conservatives were being hypocritical on the religious issue, but like Dionne, I hadn't thought through the "different folks" aspect of it.

The above hissed in response by: Jimbo [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2005 4:48 AM

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